Sponsorship disclosure: This blog article is not sponsored by any entity.
Architects have a tendency to inflate the impact and contributions buildings have on the world. It’s hard not to; architecture is a literal concrete gesture meant to stand the test of time and exist at scales which afford many human occupants.
But how much agency does a building have? How socially meaningful can a space be? And is architecture really the ‘great influencer’ many architects claim it to be?
If it’s not, then architects need to operate differently, and if it is, they aren’t doing enough to positively affect change in the world.
You are welcome to read the entire article or skip to a specific section by clicking below:
Architects’ tendency to inflate the importance of architecture
The true impact a building has on society
There is a more powerful force than architecture
Chasing the gram
A radical shift is necessary
How architects can do more
Frank Lloyd Wright famously claimed architecture is “the mother of the arts”. This mentality is still fairly widespread in the architecture community. The pinnacle of creative endeavors ends at the tip of the architect’s pen. Art, sculpture, poetry, music, all beautiful and meaningful in their own rights, but without the divine function and purpose necessitated by dwelling these efforts are lesser than their architectural matron. That is why architect’s feel empowered to critique and manage other disciplines but it’s also why they tend to be blind to the pitfalls of their pride.
Pride erodes the future by glorifying the present. It also relishes its own accomplishments, and it postures itself snidely towards outside agents. However, pride can be a useful tool. Starchitects have accomplished unimaginable feats simply by believing so sincerely in their capabilities that they refused to compromise.
Sometimes it takes someone with outlandish desires, unfettered resolve, and unquestionable talent to break the Sisyphean cycle lauded by the status quo. However, even with fundamental changes how meaningful can a building be?
Although the failure of Pruitt-Igoe can be argued as not holistically due to modernism, and although the lessons from those thirty three blocks are numerous one is surely the agency of architecture is often overestimated, “rather than housing the urban working class, places like Pruitt-Igoe became internment camps for the permanently unemployed.” (Source: Jenkins 2012)
“Rather than housing the urban working class, places like Pruitt-Igoe became internment camps for the permanently unemployed.”NPR (Source: Jenkins 2012)
It’s as if naivety and narcissism compound into producing buildings absent purpose. The question becomes not “what impact does architecture have?” but rather, “how can architecture help support the things which have the most impact?” This is the question often ignored or overlooked since it requires architect’s to invert their value structure.
The most pervasive force in modern history is not architecture, or art, or science but cultural globalization. The spread of one people’s identity and way of living to others has crystallized into ‘pop culture’ and forever, both directly and indirectly, altered the way humankind connects and lives. Architects are not ignorant to this development but are struggling to find a way to incorporate and apply these sentiments to buildings. Oftentimes, the answer is fairly skin deep; contrived geometries are gilded with fabulous and uncommon materials all in an attempt to create something ‘iconic’ or ‘instagrammable’. Ironically the power behind pop culture is the way it grows naturally, architects should focus on grass roots efforts and let their projects become viral on their own.
For a practice so fixated on the virtuous, it is bewildering the amount of effort put into ‘chasing the gram’. If architects pivoted their focus and resources from aesthetics into social justice their endeavors would not only be more impactful and more righteous, they would also be more popular. This pivot is uncomfortable because it reveals a harsh reality— buildings can’t save the world. The housing crisis will not be solved by building beautiful homes, the complicated nature of healthcare in the United States won’t be fixed by hospital planning, and the future destruction of the planet by climate change won’t be countered by covering skyscrapers with trees.
To the architect’s credit, housing is necessary, medical planning is critical, carbon offsets are valuable, and incorporating beauty makes all these things better, but it is not enough. Architecture needs to shift radically and immediately. But a shift to where, and to what end? Which goals must we align? Which stars must we chart? What efforts are noble and actionable?
These questions are often absent from our labor since they require us to look forward, past the realities of modern society, into imaginary futures that may never be realized, but must be hoped for.
“Yet let us suppose that all nonproductive work can be completely automated; that productivity increases until the world no longer knows scarcity; that the land and the means of production are socialized and as a result global production rationalized; that, as a consequence of this, the minority ceases to exercise its power over the majority.” (Source: New Babylon)
Architects can help contribute in a positive and meaningful way, but it might be in ways that are uncommon or unexpected. First, it is important to consider the various systems in power (governments, policies, organizations, companies, people, etc.). Next, we must evaluate how these systems affect society and the planet. If the system is acting as a positive force, bolstering justice, equity, diversity, inclusion, and environmental awareness, it deserves support, attention, and proliferation. If the system is doing the opposite, we must demand change.
It sounds easy; positive forces are shared with others and hallmarked in our efforts, negative forces are avoided and shunned. This is a good start, but unfortunately, it is not enough; time is of the essence. Lives are at stake, and the more these systems go without change, the harder it will be to affect them. If actions towards change are categorized into two major buckets, they would be ‘social justice’ and ‘environmental distress’.
Actions architects can take to directly impact social justice (Source: KU SOE 2021):
- Examining and adjusting our beliefs and habits.
- Educating ourselves about social justice issues.
- Discovering our local organizations.
- Taking positive action in our own communities.
- Harnessing the power of social media.
- Attending demonstrations and protests.
- Getting involved with politics through civic engagement.
- Spreading awareness in our networks or spheres of influence.
- Investigating what’s happening at local schools, colleges, or universities.
- Investing responsibly.
- Supporting minority-owned businesses in your community and online.
- Supporting artists, writers, and activists who speak out against injustices.
- Considering social justice issues that are relevant to our projects.
- Creating creative collateral for social justice efforts.
- Including organizations, artists, and other social justice influencers in our projects.
- Monitoring and maintaining accountability with our clients and ourselves.
- Being kind, understanding, and compassionate.
Are you doing enough as an architect to directly impact social justice?
The critical nature of global warming cannot be emphasized enough. “A major lesson from COVID-19 is that even colossally decreased transportation and consumption are not nearly enough and that, instead, transformational system changes are required, and they must rise above politics.”Oxford Academic, (Source: Ripple 2021)
Actions architects can take to directly impact environmental distress:
- Examining and adjusting our beliefs and habits.
- Educating ourselves on global warming and the impact our lifestyle and choices have on the climate crisis.
- Educating our clients on what global warming is and how their project affects it directly.
- Talking openly and frequently about climate change.
- Advocating strongly and strategically for buildings to pursue net zero or energy sources alternative fossil fuels.
- Considering the life cycle impact of our project’s material palette and advocating for those with the lowest carbon footprint.
- Encouraging the restoration of biodiversity and reduced impact on ecosystems.
- Switching to plant-based diets and reducing food waste.
- Encouraging a reduction in consumption of material goods.
- Volunteering and lecturing at local schools, colleges, and universities about climate change and the impact buildings have.
Are you doing enough as an architect to impact environmental distress?
Ultimately, as architects, we need to modify our personal behavior to correctly align with the beliefs we claim to uphold. We must be bold and unafraid to risk losing a project, a client, or an argument by holding true to our convictions.
If we do not practice what we preach then we are not acting as a positive force of change but rather entrenching the status quo. However, if we take the aforementioned steps above, revolutionize our thinking, and truly value our morals the way we say we do, then we will not only change the face of architecture, but we will change the world.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog article and we’ll see you again soon.
Special thanks to the following individuals and entities for their contribution to this article:
1971 (Copyright 1943), The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, Quote Page 23, Signet Book: Published by the Penguin Group, New York. (Reprint of 1943 Bobbs-Merrill edition)(Verified with scans of Signet edition)
Jenkins, Mark. “In St. Louis, an Urban Renewal Experiment Gone Bad.” NPR, NPR, 20 Jan. 2012, www.npr.org/2012/01/19/145343942/in-st-louis-an-urban-renewal-experiment-gone-bad.
Constant Nieuwenhuys. “New Babylon.” The Hague, 1974, pp. 2-3.
“15 Ways to Advance Social Justice in Your Community.” KU SOE, 28 June 2021, educationonline.ku.edu/community/15-ways-to-advance-social-justice.
Ripple, William J, et al. “World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate EMERGENCY 2021.” OUP Academic, Oxford University Press, 28 July 2021, academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biab079/6325731.
Got 30 seconds? We’d love to hear your feedback!